Reading Time: 7 minutes / Laszlo Honti
Reading Time: 7 minutes

I am having to defend my claims of biblical contradictions and issues with the infancy narratives against Dave Armstrong, fellow Patheos writer, but for the Catholic channel. I have previously taken him to task over his attack on my Herod and census piece, and found his position seriously wanting.

Now I will look at his piece on my claims about the mistranslation of “virgin” in the Gospel accounts of Jesus’ birth. Please read my original piece. This first rebuttal concentrates more on the prophecy aspect than the translation of a particular word.

Here is the Isaiah 7:14-16 prophecy:

Therefore the Lord himself will give you a sign. Behold, a young woman shall conceive and bear a son and shall call his name Immanuel. He shall eat curds and honey when he knows how to refuse evil and choose the good. For before the child knows how to refuse the evil and choose the good, the land before whose two kings you are in dread will be deserted.

I said the following:

It has been claimed that this prophecy, then, was a dual prophecy predicting two different outcomes. However, dual prophecies have no precedent—there are simply no other examples of such a thing.

To which he countered:

To the contrary, dual application or dual fulfillment or “double reference” of prophecies is a fairly common occurrence in biblical prophecy (particularly in messianic prophecies).  An article on website explains this and provides many examples.

I advise you to read that linked article. It is thoroughly underwhelming and only presents examples of Christ being the double reference, which was exactly the point. Double prophecies only appear to get applied to Jesus, because that is all Christians can do. For the non-Christian (i.e. Jew), the Messiah is yet to appear and these prophecies only apply to the people in the OT itself to which they obviously do apply prima facie. The Christian has to make a case for these prophecies to apply to the original protagonist (e.g. King Ahaz) and Jesus. This is a tough sell, and I don’t buy it. It looks ad hoc because it almost certainly is. And that linked article does the square root of naff all to convince me otherwise.

Point being, that Jesus is the only application of double reference prophecies. There are never double reference prophecies as far as I know wthin the OT.

Armstrong, through Glenn Miller, continues by saying the prophecy that applies to King Ahaz actually applies more generally to the whole “house of David”. Which would include, of course, Jesus. As religioustolerance points out:

Isaiah’s prophecy was that the child Immanuel was to have been born in 742 BCE, the first year of King Ahaz’s reign. Ahaz, the king of Judah, faced the combined armies of Syria and Israel. Isaiah explained to Ahaz that he should not form an alliance with Assyria. In support of this advice, God would provide a sign: a young woman would conceive and bear a child who would be named Immanuel. The sign would have only have been effective if it happened almost immediately. It would not have convinced King Ahaz that Isaiah’s prophecy was valid if it was not fulfilled until after King Ahaz’ death!

Isaiah was clearly not referring to some event that would occur centuries later. When he referred to the far future, as in Chapter 11, he typically used a phrase such as “In that day.

It is quite something to have a prophecy that was three-quarters of a millennium long, and doesn’t fit in with any other prophetical analysis that isn’t interested in shoehorning in Jesus. And as this commentary states, where Isaiah did refer to a much later time frame, he used different language signposts.

Now, granted, this skeptical approach can be argued to invalidate prophecies for Jesus almost a priori, but you really have to stretch things to allow for a double reference to signify someone who comes almost a thousand years later (and still pretty much fails to be anything like a Messiah, since after 2000 years has brought about a world where most people don’t believe in him).

Tim Callahan, in The Secret Origins of the Bible has this to say (p. 377):

Matthew has made a number of errors in trying to make this into a prophecy of the irgin birth ofv Jesus. First of all he has taken it out of context. In the story in Isaiah 7, Pekah, king of Israel, and Rezin, king of Syria, have formed an alliance to resist the Assyrians. They attempt to bully Ahaz, king of Judah, into joining their alliance by attacking Judah. Ahaz, however, makes himself tributary to Tiglath-pileser III of Assyria. Since both Israel and Syria had been tributary to Assyria and were now in revolt, there is no point in Isaiah’s mind for Ahaz to give tribute to Tiglath-pileser to do what he intends to do anyway. He tells the king that by the time a child to be born shortly can tell good from evil, which most likely would be at the age of 12, the Assyrians will have destroyed both Syria and Israel. So in the context of Isaiah, the Immanuel sign cannot possibly refer to Jesus.

Rabbi Tovia Singer gives a good response here (in “Dual Prophecy’ and the Virgin Birth”), which includes:

If we interpret this chapter as referring to Jesus’ birth, what possible comfort and assurance would Ahaz, who was surrounded by to overwhelming military enemies, have found in the birth of a child seven centuries later? Both he and his people would have been long dead and buried. Such a sign would make no sense.

Verses 15-16 state that by the time this child reaches the age of maturity (“he knows to reject bad and choose good”), the two warring kings, Pekah and Rezin, will have been removed. In II Kings 15-16, it becomes clear that this prophecy was fulfilled contemporaneously, when both kings, Pekah and Retsin, were assassinated. It is clear from the context of Isaiah’s seventh chapter that the child born in Isaiah 7:14 is not Jesus or any future virgin birth. Rather, it is referring to the divine protection that King Ahaz and his people would enjoy during the Syro-Ephraimite War.

This and more contextual analysis lead me to the firm belief that the prophecy is being completely misappropriated in being later assigned to Jesus. I understand why the Gospel writers (Matthew in particular) would want to trawl back through the Old Testament in order to find “evidence” that their Messiah, disappointingly crucified, was indeed the actual Messiah.

Singer continues:

This is where the Christian response of a dual prophecy comes in. Missionaries attempt to explain away this stunning problem of Matthew’s complete indifference to the biblical context of Isaiah 7:14 by claiming that Isaiah’s words to Ahaz had two different applications. They concede that the first application of Isaiah’s prophecy must have been addressed to Ahaz and his immediate crisis. That child that was born contemporaneously, and the first leg of this dual prophesy was fulfilled at the time of Ahaz, 2,700 years ago.

Missionaries insist, remarkably, that the second leg of this dual prophecy applied to Jesus’ virgin birth 2,000 years ago. Using this elaborate explanation, Christian apologists maintain that Matthew’s use of Isaiah 7:14 is entirely appropriate. In short, these Christians claim that Isaiah’s prophecy was fulfilled twice: The first, in 732 B.C.E., and a second time in the year 1 C.E. Problem solved?

The self-inflicted problems spawned by this adventurous dual-fulfillment explanation are staggering. The notion of a dual prophecy was fashioned without any Biblical foundation. Nowhere in the seventh chapter of Isaiah does the text indicate or even hint of a second fulfillment.2

This notion of a dual prophecy was contrived in order to conceal a stunning theological problem – the seventh chapter of Isaiah does not support Matthew’s virgin birth story. Matthew’s claim that Mary was untouched by a man when she conceived Jesus in unsupported by the Book of Isaiah.

The seventh chapter of Isaiah describes, in great detail, a contemporaneous, traumatic civil war which occurred 2,700 years ago, not the birth of a messiah many centuries later. Simply put, the Book of Matthew ripped Isaiah 7:14 completely out of context. Moreover, if, as missionaries argue, the Hebrew word almah can only mean a “virgin,” and, as they insist, Isaiah 7:14 was fulfilled twice, who was the first virgin to conceive during Ahaz’s lifetime? Were there two virgin births?

In other words, if Christians claim that the virgin birth of Isaiah 7:14 was fulfilled on two occasions, who was the first virgin to deliver a baby boy during the lifetime of Isaiah, in about 732 B.C.E.? Bear in mind that these missionaries zealously insist that the word almah can only mean a “virgin.” Are they then suggesting that Mary was not the only virgin in history to conceive and give birth to a son?

This annoys me. It annoys me because I never thought of this for my book on the nativity (The Nativity: A Critical Examination) – it’s a great argument. What Christians are saying is that they accept another virgin birth before Jesus’ one. There was a miraculous virgin birth before Jesus in the time of King Ahaz!TheNativity

Armstrong relies heavily on Glenn Miller, whom he quotes as saying:

The prophecy is given to not just Ahaz, but to ‘the house of David’–the ‘you’ in v.14 is plural, and Ahaz is addressed as a representative of the line (whereas in 7.1-9, the phase ‘house of David’ is described as ‘Ahaz and his people’–v.2). The point here is that the message is addressed to a historically-larger group (i.e. the dynasty and lineage of David) than a simple ‘local’ fulfillment would suggest. . . .

The “you” being plural here is no surprise, in talking to the audience. What is fascinating is that Armstrong talks a lot about the prophecy and how it can refer to Jesus, and then spends a lot of time on the virgin translation aspect (more on that in another post), but doesn’t really look at how the prophecy can make any sense at all in the context of being applied to Jesus. I mean, what of this?:

He shall eat curds and honey when he knows how to refuse evil and choose the good. For before the child knows how to refuse the evil and choose the good, the land before whose two kings you are in dread will be deserted.

This only makes sense outside of the Jesus context, yet if Armstrong and others want to massage and apply these verses to fit the Jesus narrative, then it all needs to fit, not just the verses in the paragraph that they can (at a stretch) apply, with all others being ignored.

What could those lines above possibly mean in application to Jesus? This whole enterprise is so desperately ad hoc and it is amazing to see the lengths apologists will go to harmonise particular things. In this case, they try to harmonise part of the prophecy in quite unbelievable ways, and then promptly forget all the other parts of the prophecy that happen to be too difficult to deal with.

Conclusion? Armstong will continue to need to do a lot better to unhinge my arguments. And I haven’t even mentioned the mistransalation aspects yet…

A TIPPLING PHILOSOPHER Jonathan MS Pearce is a philosopher, author, columnist, and public speaker with an interest in writing about almost anything, from skepticism to science, politics, and morality,...

Notify of
Inline Feedbacks
View all comments